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Jimmy Savile: National treasure in life, reviled 'sex abuser' in death

By Dave Gilbert, CNN
January 11, 2013 -- Updated 1157 GMT (1957 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Flamboyant BBC TV host, who died in 2011, accused of being a prolific child abuser
  • Savile hosted "Top of the Pops" and "Jim'll Fix It," a BBC show mostly for children
  • UK police say more than 200 possible victims of Savile's sexual abuse now identified
  • BBC has been widely criticized for its handling of the Savile crisis

(CNN) -- The BBC is embroiled in a scandal that one of its veteran correspondents has called its worst crisis in nearly 50 years -- over its response to allegations that have turned a beloved on-air personality into one of the most reviled figures in the UK.

Since his death a year ago at age 84, Jimmy Savile, the popular TV host, disc jockey and charity fundraiser has been knocked off his perch as a national treasure, accused of being a predatory pedophile who used his fame and position to abuse youngsters, sometimes on BBC premises.

The corporation has been widely criticized for its handling of the crisis. British police say more than 200 possible victims have now been identified in what one officer Commander Peter Spindler said was "alleged abuse on an unprecedented scale."

But who was Jimmy Savile and how did he become the eccentric star -- a cigar-smoking, jewel-encrusted, larger-than-life character who was rewarded with a knighthood for his charitable work?

He mixed with British high society, and his death was greeted with sadness by many, including Prince Charles and his wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. He was buried with customary glitz in a gold-colored coffin and with a green beret presented to him by the Royal Marines -- but his life began amid much humbler surroundings.

Savile was born in Leeds in northern England on Halloween in 1926 and as a teenager conscripted to work as a coal miner during World War II -- these young wartime miners were known as the Bevin Boys. He was one of the surviving Bevin Boys who received an award from the then British Prime Minister Gordon Brown in 2008 for helping to keep the mines operational during the conflict.

Savile suffered serious spinal injuries in a mine explosion and left the colliery but it doesn't appear to have stopped him from lifelong participation in sport.

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In the 1950s he took up wrestling and cycling, and he appeared regularly on British television running in marathons for charity even into his 70s.

In an interview with the Guardian newspaper in 2000 he spoke of his love of sport. "If you look at the athletics of it," he told the newspaper, "I've done over 300 professional bike races, 212 marathons and 107 pro fights." He proudly announced that he lost 35 of his first 35 fights.

"No wrestler wanted to go back home and say a long-haired disc jockey had put him down. So from start to finish I got a good hiding. I've broken every bone in my body. I loved it."

Cycling Weekly reported last year that he also had been a semi-professional cyclist and competed as Oscar 'The Duke' Savile in the 1951 Tour of Britain, and supported cycling charities most of his life.

His broadcast career took off in the early 1960s but he said he had been playing records in dance halls from the mid-1940s, later claiming that he was the first to use the double-deck turntable, though commentators have pointed out that they were available decades earlier.

He recalled selling just 12 tickets for his first show but said he enjoyed creating what he referred to as the "atmosphere."

"There was this amazing effect: what I was doing was causing 12 people to do something," he told DJHistory.com in 2004. "My thrill is looking at them, and they're all doing what they're doing because I've just put this thing on. It's a hell of a thing," he said.

He joined the independent station Radio Luxembourg as a DJ in 1958, but his big break came in 1964 when the BBC approached Savile to be the first host of "Top of the Pops" -- a show that became a huge hit for the BBC. It also began a 30-year TV career that was a showcase for his extravagant dress, yodels and catchphrases like "Now then, now then, and "How's about that then."

The BBC gave him his own show between 1975 and 1994 in which he helped hundreds of hopefuls, mostly children, fulfill their dreams to meet famous people and take part in stunts. "Jim'll Fix It" aired in the prime teatime slot on a Saturday, and at the height of its popularity, the BBC said it was receiving 20,000 requests a week. Famous fixes included an encounter with boxing legend Muhammad Ali and the boy scouts who wanted to eat their packed lunches on a roller coaster, resulting in a predictable mess.

Generations of Britons also remember him for a string of public information films including a road safety promotion that encouraged motorists to use their seat belts -- a campaign that started before wearing belts became compulsory in the UK. Savile's closing catchphrase "clunk click every trip" was instantly memorable and caught on with the watching public. He also promoted the national rail network in a campaign dubbed "This is the age of the train."

Savile was knighted in the 1990 Queen's Birthday Honors for "charitable services," adding to the OBE (Order of the British Empire) he received in the 1970s, and he set up the Jimmy Savile Charitable Trust.

Savile was well-known for raising money through charity runs but also worked as a volunteer hospital porter and had a close association with the Stoke Mandeville Hospital spinal injuries unit.

Stoke Mandeville's Jimmy's Café, named after the TV personality, has now been changed since the sex abuse scandal surfaced and following specific allegations widely reported in the British press that one of his alleged victims Caroline Moore, now 53, was sexually assaulted by Savile in a Stoke Mandeville corridor in 1971, when she was a 13-year-old patient.

He told the BBC in 2000 that he had raised £40m ($64 million) for charity during his lifetime.

In 1988 Savile was appointed to a senior role at Broadmoor Hospital -- a high security psychiatric hospital in England that treats some of the most dangerous men in the country -- a role that is now being investigated by the UK's Department of Health.

The department says that in hindsight he should not have been appointed.

Although he was perceived as an odd and eccentric character, the British public has been shocked by the allegations. The Savile family had his tombstone removed from his burial site out of "respect to public opinion."

Dominic Sandbrook, author of a series of histories of modern Britain, told CNN: "Because he was associated with the BBC, people trusted him and thought of him as a family-friendly face. He was a massive presence in the living rooms of millions of British families."

But when Jimmy Savile died, fellow BBC disc jockey Tony Blackburn hinted that he was an isolated figure, telling the BBC: "He was just a complete one-off. I think he was a bit of a lonely character as well. In the privacy of his own life I don't think he had very many friends."

Film-maker Louis Theroux perhaps gained more of an insight into what many would regard as odd behavior. In a documentary made in 2000 he interviewed Savile in a flat where his mother had lived but still kept her clothing hanging in the wardrobe 27 years after her death. In the same program he also revealed that he only took a single pair of underpants with him when he went away and washed them in the sink every night.

Despite hosting a children's show, Theroux asked him why he hated youngsters and he replied: "We live in a very funny world and it's easier for me as a single man to say I don't like children because that puts a lot of salacious tabloid people off the hunt."

And when he was confronted about sexual abuse allegations in a 2007 radio interview, he brushed it off with a laugh, saying: "What's the point of responding to something that's not true?"

The extensive investigations into Savile's behavior are only just beginning, but it appears his reputation as a fun-loving host of pop and a tireless charity worker are already ruined.

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